For most of my life I have generally avoided horror films. The genre makes me profoundly uncomfortable. This means I have enormous gaps in my cinematic knowledge. Each year I ask friends and family which essential horror movies I need to see in order to fill those gaps and spend October writing them, agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them. This is my No Sleep October.
This entry in No Sleep October was published at The Film Yap during the original run of the column in 2013.
My friend and fellow MFJ writer Sam Watermeier arrived at my apartment on Sunday, toting a bag of movies he guaranteed would scare the daylights out of me. I chose The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
We started the film. I was already nervous.
“I hope this terrifies you,” Sam says.
“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin….”
It was love at first opening scrawl. And it terrified me.
When Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) found herself running through a blackened forest with a chainsaw wielding maniac behind her … I couldn’t look away. I feel like I’m still watching it. And when her eye, in closeup, starts to shed a little tear of fear at the sight of the deranged Sawyers eating her friends? When it quick-cuts between eye shots like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? I think it changed my life.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often credited as a highly influential film, and it’s obvious why. It was a low-budget exploitation film that managed to focus and, in that focus, become terrifying and effective. It lacks gratuitousness. It lacks cynicism. There is no point about human nature to be made. It straddles your ability to empathize and rides it off a fucking cliff.
If the key to exploitation is fetish, the question to be asked about exploitation films must be, what is fetishized? What gets your brain excited? It seems to me that many filmmakers focus on violence, gore and sexual content in hopes of offending the corresponding conventional values. Usually they succeed in offending, but rarely do they feel scary, meaningful, resonant. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre certainly features graphic violence and disturbing imagery, it doesn’t revel in them. The murders happen ingloriously, in rapid succession, leaving an entire third act for the ultimate dinner party from hell.
Terror, really, is the focus of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Your stomach is spared but your spirit is torn to shreds as you watch a woman helplessly scream and scream and scream.
There’s a certain element of weirdness, of macabre to the whole affair. Leatherface is a monster, sure, but he’s a monster who ends up dressed like a doting grandmother while feeding his family sausage squeezed from teenagers. His transvestism isn’t emphasized, it’s just background detail. It’s not a statement. In fact, I can’t recall ever hearing it as a part of the grander cultural mythology of the character.
The night after I watched it, I had nightmares. Real nightmares. No, not the kind you see in movies, with a monster chasing me in the dark or dastardly cinematic villains laughing at psyche. I had the truly horrifying kind of dream, the kind where little bits of fear and panic from earlier in the day manifest in flashes of bleak, incongruous emotion. Where the nausea from watching Franklin (Paul A. Partain), the invalid brother, sawed to death while helplessly trapped in his wheelchair was mixed with recent memories of cleaning my room. The sort of dream where I’m stuck mid-vision trying to figure out why my girlfriend and I took a detour to an abandoned house in Texas filled with bone and skin and bodies …
What I’m trying to say is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre infected me with its terrifying ambience, its relentless mood. It worked, on so many levels. It scared me good.
It was the first movie this month to give me nightmares, and I loved every second of them.